Category Archives: West Webster Fire Department

Another look at a hometown tragedy

Not all of my stories for The Trace touch on my current main reporting interest in crime victims. But my latest does. And they’re victims whose story I know well from past articles I’ve written, and from an even more personal connection: the crime took place in my hometown of Webster, New York, involving people whose social circles intersect with my friends and family.

The December 24, 2012, ambush of volunteer firefighters in a neighborhood on the Lake Ontario shore killed two (Michael Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka) and seriously wounded two others (Ted Scardino and Joe Hofstetter). Three years ago, when I was working on what I hoped would be a book about the crime — I have since put that project on hold, I hope not forever — I wrote two stories about the crime’s aftermath. One, a cover story in Pacific Standard, looked at  the psychological growth that can be sparked by the trauma of such an event. The other, in the magazine where I once worked as an editor, The American Lawyer, told of Scardino’s efforts to press for tougher federal laws on straw purchases of weapons.

Straw purchases — where someone who can pass a background check illegally supplies weapons to someone barred from buying a gun — once again are the subject of my new story for The Trace. Using the lawsuit that the victims and their families brought against Gander Mountain, the retailer that sold the guns that ended up in the Webster killer’s hands, I examine a tactic used by plaintiffs’ lawyers to try to win these cases. The tactic: comparing a retailer’s behavior to industry standards promoted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation to show whether a gun seller took enough care to prevent a straw purchase.

When Chiapperini vs. Gander Mountain was filed on the victims’ behalf by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the social-media peanut gallery criticized the victims for trying to cash in on their tragedy, or simply for looking in the wrong place to lay blame. If the firefighters’ and families’ allegations prove correct about what Gander Mountain clerks did and didn’t do, then the plaintiffs in this lawsuit will convincingly win that argument — not that everyone can be convinced to change their mind when guns are the subject.

The victims said when they filed the suit that they want this to bring about reforms, and to help other people. That’s a common impulse when tragedy strikes. I’ll continue to follow this case to see if the victims ever reach their goal.

Post-traumatic growth, one year later

psmagcover-08Over the weekend, the organizer of a public-service campaign in my hometown announced that he was shutting it down. That caught my eye because of the significance I had attached to it in this story for Pacific Standard magazine (and related blog post) about the aftermath of a shocking crime in that town, Webster, New York, on Christmas Eve, 2012.

My story used a handful of examples to explain post-traumatic growth, a psychological phenomenon in which the mind — responding, sort of but not quite, in direct contrast with post-traumatic stress — uses trauma to spur positive growth: a changed life mission; a resolve to view the world in a new way. I was careful not to declare that my case examples definitely experienced PTG, or that their new missions would prove long-lasting. The story constituted a early snapshot of the sorts of responses that could, depending on effort and circumstances, ultimately turn into genuine PTG.

One of the examples was Joe Harmon, a young father and IT professional who took a crazed sniper’s ambush attack on volunteer firefighters (in which two were killed and two wounded) and turned that into WeAreWebster.com, a site meant to foster a closer sense of community by organizing public-service projects. Though Harmon had no experience as a community organizer, his natural reaction to try to make sense of a nearby mass shooting was to make peace, and use the tragedy as a springboard into something positive. The site never really gained much traction, however, and Harmon — busy with work, school, and family — announced he will pull the plug on July 1.

I emailed Harmon to ask for details. He explained that he still cares as deeply about the victims and survivors of the attack, and he still wants the same for Webster: to get to know each other and look out for each other. After realizing the project would take more time and money than he can afford, Harmon reluctantly gave up on his original plan for a site to organize volunteer projects and to bring neighbors together. But, he reasoned — perfectly in tune with my story, which reported on psychology and sociology research into PTG — the site “was also my way to grieve along with everyone in our community — only this was the way I felt I could show it.” It’s more than grief, though. It’s a sign that Harmon’s response to trauma was to search for good, rather than rage at the bad. The search turned into the goal.

Another of the folks I wrote about, Michelle Vercruysse, started a pair of Facebook pages to remember the victims and promote acts of kindness in their memory. Both continued well into 2013, but by late in the year when I last emailed with her, Michelle’s efforts had largely shrunk from public to private. She had lost none of her passion to turn tragedy into growth, but had not been able to pull very many of her fellow townspeople along with her.

Both Harmon and Vercruysse exhibited behavior consistent with the research I had found. That their public organizing proved short-lived matters less than that their own lives were changed. I might say the same about myself. I put my work on a book about the tragedy on hold last year because I needed to make a living doing other projects in the near term. Then, when I won a Soros Justice Media Fellowship that requires full-time work for a year starting last month, I told my West Webster Fire Department and Webster Police Department contacts that I would not be able to resume work on it for at least a year. I still hope and plan to. But, for now, the residual effects on me remain strictly personal. I’m not the praying kind, but every time I visit Webster or see volunteer firefighters, I think about the survivors for whom the crimes of 12/24/12 remain a central feature of their lives.

The primary character in my story, Bill Benson, whose Facebook page served as a hub for pro-social campaigns in the immediate aftermath of the shootings, transitioned to HeroesMemorial.org to continue his efforts to raise money for first responders’ memorials after line-of-duty deaths. He told me in a Facebook message this morning that he remains involved “more so every day.”

The gunman’s helper

When a gunman ends a crime spree by killing himself, our instinct for retribution, and our quest to hold accountable anyone who played any role in the run-up to the crime, can lead to  tricky questions of criminal culpability. The what-if questions — if this or that had not happened, would the crime have been averted? — carry enormous emotional weight for the victims, family, friends, and all others traumatized by the violence.

Those are the questions at stake in a case arising from a shooting I’ve followed closely, and reported on in preparation for an eventual book, after the Christmas Eve 2012 ambush of volunteer firefighters in Webster, New York. Now, thanks to a case with remarkable parallels in Colorado, we can see how one federal judge answered the questions about the degree to which others bear blame when they supply the gun used in a crime spree.

In the Webster case, William Spengler killed his sister, then started a fire that ultimately consumed a row of houses, including his own. The fire was a trap for firefighters. He shot four, killing two. Then he killed himself. Spengler had been out of prison since 1998, after serving 17 years  for manslaughter in the beating death of his grandmother. Barred from owning a gun, he armed himself with a shotgun and assault rifle by recruiting a neighbor to buy them for him two years before his final shooting spree, federal and state authorities have charged. That neighbor, Dawn Nguyen, a 24-year-old college student at the time of Spengler’s attack, is the only person facing charges related to the shootings.

That makes Nguyen a target in two ways: for allegedly committing the crime of lying about the ultimate purchaser, and more generally — in the eyes of many who grieve the losses that Spengler inflicted — for helping set in motion the crime itself.  One of Spengler’s victims, firefighter Ted Scardino, spoke in favor of legislation that would toughen the penalties for so-called straw purchases, as I reported in this American Lawyer story last year. Scardino and others are plainly offended that the law treats such gun transactions as fairly minor technical violations, rather than as critical elements in the commission of violent felonies. Scardino told me in no uncertain terms that he holds Nguyen responsible for his life-altering injuries, and those suffered by his friends: “By her buying it and giving it to him, that’s what led to this incident.”

And that brings us to the Colorado case. On Monday, a federal judge sentenced a 23-year-old woman, Stevie Marie Vigil, to 27 months in prison for providing the weapon used by parolee Evan Ebel in the killings of the state’s prisons chief and a pizza delivery man. Ebel also shot a Texas sheriff’s deputy before leading police on a chase and dying in a shootout (The Denver Post story on Vigil’s sentencing includes videos of the horrifying shooting of the deputy and of the chase). Prosecutors sought a six-year term for Vigil, writing, “When you give a handgun to a violent felon, it is reasonably foreseeable the felon will use the gun for violent purposes” (read their motion here). The wounded deputy, speaking in court, argued that Vigil should be charged with his assault and the two murders.

But the judge — ruling there was no evidence Vigil knew of Ebel’s plans, and that Ebel would have been able to get the gun regardless — refused to levy a sentence above the maximum recommended in federal sentencing-guidelines for Vigil’s charges and circumstances. The Post quotes one victim’s father criticizing the sentence, and the Post itself editorialized that the sentence was too light.

The evidence in the Nguyen case isn’t fully revealed yet, so it’s hard to know how closely the two cases parallel each other in the critical details: the young women’s knowledge of how the guns might be used. If Nguyen goes to trial, rather than plea bargaining, we may learn more than we know now about her role, although excellent reporting by the Democrat & Chronicle‘s Gary Craig has revealed that Spengler used his suicide note to cast blame on Nguyen’s mother (not that Spengler’s word counts for much).

Regardless, both cases confront hard questions about moral and legal blame — and the public reaction that accompanies those questions — when one person helps another, however unwittingly, commit a terrible crime. We’re all angry about what happened and want to hold everyone accountable, within reason. It’s that last phrase where public opinion is likely to split, and where careful reporting of the facts can at least inform the debate so that it isn’t driven solely by anger.

Name that killer

Thanks in part to this story last week by Jack Healy in The New York Times, journalists must justify or rethink their practice of identifying attackers by name in stories about mass killings. It’s a debate worth having because it not only addresses the important issue on the surface — whether stories about one attack glorify the killer in a way that inspires copycats — but also a more fundamental question: journalism’s purpose in covering crime at all.

Healy wrote about the naming debate in the context of the most recent shooting scare, at a suburban Denver school, but it hits much closer to home for me because it has been a topic of discussion in the year since William Spengler ambushed volunteer firefighters in Webster, New York. The Facebook page devoted to the victims of that shooting, which I wrote about in this Pacific Standard story, maintained its refusal to link to stories that name Spengler throughout the past week’s anniversary coverage. That coverage included fresh revelations by the Democrat & Chronicle‘s Gary Craig about Spengler’s twisted motives, and an unusual published justification by Craig’s editor for running the story. Explaining the newspaper’s handling of a note Spengler left behind, which police had kept secret, editor Dick Moss wrote:

Doubtlessly, some will still be offended by the content or the timing. But we believe that after a year it’s time our community learned more about who Spengler was and what he wrote on the eve of his crime. It is the closest we can come to knowing what this demented man was actually thinking and understanding why that horrific day was visited on our community.

Still, the D&C hedged a bit. Its story ran two days before, rather than directly on, the Christmas Eve anniversary of the attack, out of deference to sensitivities about taking the focus off the victims. And the paper withheld portions of the letter, Moss wrote, “for legal reasons and because much of it simply isn’t relevant to the community’s understanding of Spengler and the situation.”

The newspaper’s caution is understandable, if not entirely transparent (we have “legal reasons” for keeping some of this secret, but because you don’t know what we’re talking about, you’ll just have to take our word for it). Public anger over Spengler’s crimes — an irrational attack on public-spirited volunteer first responders — make it difficult, to say the least, to hold a calm discussion about what can be learned from this.

Besides conflict avoidance, there’s a more concrete reason to deny such killers the spotlight. “The point,” journalist Dave Cullen wrote last September, “is not to hide the information, it’s to willfully deprive the killer of his fame.”

Such arguments are based as much on common sense as they are on actual research. While the research is thin that publicity is a proven trigger, it’s hard to deny the logic that says an act such as Spengler’s is meant to flip off the world, or just a neighborhood, and thus the stories about the killer and his twisted reasoning only serve that goal. As one letter-writer put it in response to Healy’s article, violent fantasies inspired by attacks in the news seem rooted in a desire to acquire power and importance. Shut that down and you at least remove the payoff for the killings, put aside whether we can prove that we have removed a causal link for future killings. In her letter, Ann Adams continues:

Official records must include names and personal details about the killers, but we, the general public, don’t need to know that information. That should belong only to those who are doing legitimate research into causes and motivation and those engaged in an official investigation. All that the public gains from such details is satiation of curiosity.

That’s not the world I want to live and work in, where “experts” toil in private, doing the public’s business without troubling us with the details. Plus, we gain more than a simple voyeuristic thrill when we read about the lives and minds of mass killers. Dave Cullen’s masterful book Columbine is a perfect counterpoint to his own news-blackout argument. Through a massive reporting effort, Cullen told the story of the Columbine killers, debunking myths and answering the central question we all have when such crimes occur: Why?

In Cullen’s book, we read about two troubled teens indistinguishable from many other troubled teens. Maybe that’s the lesson to be learned. The answers we crave rarely prove simple and clear. We tend to blame ostensibly fixable problems (lax gun laws, weak mental health care, missed signals of a coming crime) and define killers as alien beings (monsters, evil, senseless). What if life proves more confounding than that? What if potential killers walk among us, able to snap under conditions that prove harmless in nearly all other cases? In the end, that reality of human nature may be the most valuable lesson we learn from many of these crimes, and we depend on journalists like Cullen and Craig to dig up the facts and tell us what they learned — or couldn’t learn.

None of this is an argument to ignore victims or elevate killers to cult-hero status. True-crime reports that in fact treat violence as mere entertainment deserve our condemnation. But that should not mean that everyone must be denied details and answers when mass killers strike in our midst. We owe it to ourselves to understand this side of human nature. And we depend on journalists to do their job and tell us the truth. Names included.

At 11 months, snapshots of pain

20131111Sixty-three thousand seven hundred and eighty teddy bears. That detail — one of many about donations to flood Newtown, Connecticut, in the months since its tragedy last December — jumps out of the lede of Lisa Miller’s feature on the aftermath of school massacre in the November 11 issue of New York magazine. Getting the jump on the coming deluge of anniversary stories, the story focuses on what are, to me, the most intriguing questions coming out of this and many other violent tragedies: When do public reactions, driven by emotion and grief, help victims and survivors? And when do they do the opposite, or at least miss the target?

With so many gifts, and outright cash donations ($22 million, by the state attorney general’s count), the struggle in Newtown that Miller movingly documents is the impossible task of measuring degrees of victimhood in the small town. As I wrote last August when commenting on Jim Oliphant’s National Journal story on a related topic, however difficult and invasive it seems to pry into victims’ families’ pain, it serves the public interest to ask hard questions about the systems in place to compensate and console them. Miller’s story performs that task ably, though I wish it had given more words and thought to the equally engaging question of what the rest of us should do with this knowledge. If all those teddy bears are a waste, and if the money only makes people fight, then what?

In this Pacific Standard magazine story I wrote, and a companion blog post, I suggested one answer: turning inward, to transform our anger and grief as bystanders into something constructive, even if that something is small-bore and private. After reading of sad Newtown 11 months later, that still seems right. But it doesn’t address what happens to the directly affected victims. For them, all this story offers is a glimpse of their daily struggle. That makes it a valuable piece of journalism — we need to see this and think about it, now that most of us have moved on — but it leaves those larger questions unanswered, and probably unanswerable.

Remembrance of crimes past

I’m a little late to this piece from The Washington Post‘s Paul Farhi last week, but it deserves some attention, given my interest in how we as a society (including but not just journalists) respond to mass shootings. Farhi marvels at our ability to modulate our sympathy outpourings: a little for the Navy Yard victims, a lot for the Newtown victims. He writes:

… [N]ot all senseless, horrendous crimes are equal in the national consciousness. It’s as though the events of Monday morning, after the first breathless reports, failed to jog the media’s central nervous system and, by extension, the public’s, into a sustained response.

President Obama yesterday placed this topic in the context of gun control, when in his remarks at a memorial service for the Navy Yard victims he argued it is not enough to mourn. Instead, he said, we show we care by getting mad enough to take action.

Whether we’re focused on journalists (and I could argue the coverage is as much a reflection of public sentiment as it is a catalyst) or policy, it is indeed curious and worrisome that lost lives or maimed bodies fail to stir us in equal proportions. But of course it’s also natural and probably necessary. To live at a sustained level of alarm and outrage is impossible for anyone but cable-news commentators. And look at how unappealing they become as a result.

So what do we do with the reality that we journalists and our audience will pay widely varying degrees of attention to victims and crimes? Does it necessarily dishonor each victim — whether of an ordinary street crime or a nationally televised mass shooting — if his or her loss does not provoke Newtown-level grieving and remembrance? Are we simply fickle or callous because we don’t surround each case with a consistent number of ribbons, plaques, telethons, and ceremonies? What good does that really do for them anyway? Is it defeatist to accept that murder and tragedy are part of life, no matter how earnest our expressions of sorrow and our attempts at prevention?

When a death becomes news, or a writer can tell a meaningful story even about a death that didn’t generate headlines, that process is by definition selective. We want to believe it’s not entirely arbitrary, but there’s always some of that, too. Combine that with our human need to live with losses behind us and we have a system that might seem random and cruel and biased but is, in many ways, just our nature. If we allow our inclination for rules to override that, we’ll frustrate ourselves without gaining much beyond a false sense of consistency.

As a storyteller focused on violent crime, I look at a crime like last December’s attack on West Webster firefighters and wonder what point to make to a national audience, which long ago forgot about a crime that holds natural and sustained interest locally. I want my work to make a meaningful point, something longer-lasting than just to say “this happened” or to touch readers with a sad, tragic story, but touched only on the surface: they have a moment, and then they move on.

I don’t quite know how to do that. But I do know that remembering removes some sense that we have betrayed the victims and their loved ones. It solves the problem that bothered Farhi, one story and one crime at a time. Perhaps that’s all we can do.

“Firefighters down”

A pair of just-published, deeply reported narratives take wildly different paths toward the same goal: remembering and honoring the victims of a pair of recent mass fatalities among firefighters. Though this blog usually focuses on crime reporting, I’m drawn to stories of this sort naturally — and particularly because of my reporting on last December’s sniper attack on volunteer firefighters in Webster, New York. What we can learn from these new stories about the two tragedies — the 19-member wildfire crew killed in Arizona in June, and the dozen volunteers killed in the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion in April — is that there’s more than one way to document such a loss.

NewTimesThe first, by John Dougherty in Phoenix New Times, challenges the prevailing coverage that called the doomed Granite Mountain Hotshots “elite.” In fact, Dougherty documents, they lacked the proper training and resources. Maybe more important were their leadership failings on the day when they got trapped fighting a wildfire in Arizona and perished en masse. Though the raging reader comments demonstrate that many will take such reporting as a slap at the victims, the tone and substance of the story makes clear that Dougherty set out to determine if their deaths could have been prevented. And the coverline says it best: “Lambs to Slaughter: The young Granite Mountain Hotshots never should’ve been deployed on that fateful day, mounting evidence shows.” That, to me, is a great tribute that a journalist can make to the victims’ sacrifice: by caring enough to hold responsible parties accountable.

TMThe second story, by Katy Vine in the September issue of Texas Monthly, is less investigative, more a portrait of people and a culture. At its heart, it’s what we journalists call a tick-tock: a step by step account of what happened. Many of these details came out, some in longer narratives, already. But as the first (that I know of) major magazine narrative on the tragedy, this one bears the burden to tell it all in as compelling and clear a way as possible. It fairly succeeds at that, though I wished I had “met” and come to know the victims and their families more intimately. What it clearly succeeds at is showing the resilience and heart of the people of West as they soldier on despite such a shocking loss. The story barely touches on questions of mistake and responsibility, focusing instead on the attitude Vine says the town has adopted: accepting fate and now trying to make the best of it. It’s a different sort of victim tribute, but one no less heartfelt and effective.

Beware “the rush to normal”

An op-ed in today’s New York Times serves as an apt postscript to my recent Pacific Standard story on post-traumatic growth (which I blogged about here and here). Psychiatrist Mark Epstein, author of the forthcoming book The Trauma of Everyday Life, writes:

Grief is not the same for everyone. And it does not always go away. The closest one can find to a consensus about it among today’s therapists is the conviction that the healthiest way to deal with trauma is to lean into it, rather than try to keep it at bay. The reflexive rush to normal is counterproductive. In the attempt to fit in, to be normal, the traumatized person (and this is most of us) feels estranged.

Trauma, he points out, comes at us far more often than just in the wake of a mass tragedy. True healing comes when we face our traumas — understand them, wrestle with them, even embrace them. It’s not considered “normal.” But it may be the best way back to normal.

Why I wrote about my town’s tragedy

Some local press for my Pacific Standard cover story, which I blogged about here. Messenger Post newspapers, publisher of the daily in the town where I live (Canandaigua) and a weekly in the town where the Christmas Eve mass shooting occurred (Webster), ran this story by freelancer Leah Stacy. She did a good job explaining why, as a writer and Webster native, I’m working to tell the story of the Christmas Eve tragedy and to understand it in a broader context. And yes, she got her facts straight: I did indeed, at one point, want to be a Webster cop.

NHPR interview on post-traumatic growth

A New Hampshire Public Radio show, Word of Mouth, features a story today on my Pacific Standard magazine cover story that I explain here. It’s a succinct summary of the story on the aftermath of the Christmas Eve attack on West Webster Fire Department volunteers, and on a psychological effect known as post-traumatic growth: how some can use exposure to traumatic violence to grow and improve psychologically.

Here’s a page with the 10-minute audio clip.